The Shillong-bred, New York-based Siddhartha Deb is the writer of two acclaimed novels (The Point of Returnand Surface). His first work of non-fiction, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, has been eagerly anticipated for some time now. The Beautiful and the Damned (also, tellingly, the title of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel) tells five extended stories of life in a country that is constructing a very different future from the one envisioned six, four, even two decades ago. It reflects deeply on the stories of subjects ranging from farmers in Andhra Pradesh to a Manipuri waitress working in Delhi.
The book’s first chapter, “The Great Gatsby,” an investigation of the life and enterprises of the businessman Arindam Chaudhuri, was excerpted in The Caravan magazine in February. But the considerable attention it received included a reprisal from Chaudhuri himself: He brought charges on Deb, along with publishers Penguin India, The Caravan and Google India, of “grave harassment and injury”.
Deb spoke to Lounge about the book, journalism in India, and Chaudhuri’s stance. Edited excerpts:
Your title is interesting. What connected the India we’re living in—which you’re writing about—with the ironies of Fitzgerald’s America?
(Left) Siddhartha Deb; his book The Beautiful and the Damned.
I was quite caught up with the striking contrasts in contemporary India and the ways in which they reminded me of Fitzgerald’s Gilded Age. Of course, no age or nation is an exact copy of another, but the guiding metaphor gave me a starting point for my foray into contemporary India, including what some would describe as the incredible flamboyance and energy of its monied classes as well as the vast, shadowy and deprived majority on the other side of the divide.
Was it easy to incubate long, reflective pieces of reportage in a time when everything in India seems to move so fast?
The reporting for this book began in earnest in the summer of 2007, although it was sparked off as a project by some of the pieces I did as early as 2004, which was when I suffered my initial shock at how much India had changed. It was easy to see the ongoing change as a continuation of the same basic trends. The reflective passages came later, in the writing rather than in the reporting, and in part that was because I wanted to emphasize this book as something other than journalism.
I didn’t want the book to have the pretence of objectivity. I’ve always had problems with that presumption of objectivity in non-fiction, including in journalism. The facts can be accurately researched, and you can try to represent opposing points of view, but the writing itself is inevitably subjective, from the individual writer involved down to the language and media in which the writing appears. I tried to make that subjectivity quite transparent.
What are some of the things that surprised you as you wrote this book?
I was surprised by the fact that there was a greater plurality, a sense of the collective, among characters lower down the class ladder. They were less likely to see themselves as the centre of even their own universe. At the same time, I found that less privileged people were far more subject to contingencies; they couldn’t plan their future in the same way that the rich or the middle-class characters could. Esther, the waitress in the final chapter who stands at the cusp of these two worlds, showed this most clearly, planning compulsively for the future and yet subject to contingency. What this meant for me as a writer was that the chapters for the underclass characters were, as a result, more driven by plot.
And what annoyed you?
I remember being struck by the arrogance and sense of jadedness some people gave off when I told them I was working on a non-fiction book on India. But they were reacting, in part, to the notion that there were many books already on the subject. Quite a few more have been added to the list, obviously, and that will only continue. This is partly because of the importance of India as a consumer market, and in part because it’s a pretty interesting place in terms of characters and stories.
Shining: Spaces like the new Bangalore airport form the backdrop to Deb’s investigations. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Are there “India books” you’ve enjoyed reading?
The India books I enjoy tend therefore to be thoughtful explorations of the country, books that display an empathy for people rather than functioning as brand ambassadors for abstractions like the marketplace or capitalism. The writers I’ve liked most on this count are Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra and Basharat Peer. I see myself as quite different politically and temperamentally from V.S. Naipaul, but I was certainly aware of his India books as I worked on The Beautiful and the Damned. The other books important to me include classics like (George) Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London as well as contemporary works like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.
You’ve recently been involved in a lawsuit, brought by the entrepreneur Arindam Chaudhuri, against his profile, excerpted from your book’s opening chapter. Could you comment on it?
The lawsuit claims that I, along with The Caravan, Penguin and Google India, am “acting on behest or in connivance of certain competitors who are jealous and envious of the success of the IIPM (Indian Institute of Planning and Management)”. I remain deeply interested in seeing how IIPM goes about proving that I was or am working for or am in connivance with its competitors.
I thought I was writing a nuanced exploration of certain social phenomena in today’s India, including wealth and celebrity. Mr Chaudhuri thinks otherwise and is well within his rights to do so. If he thought there were factual inaccuracies in the piece, he could have first resorted to the simple, democratic instrument called a “letter to an editor”, an instrument that is used by countless other individuals and organizations. Instead, an injunction was issued from Silchar, where none of the parties involved have their primary business, and without prior notice to me or my publishers. This has made it legally impossible to publish the chapter in India even though the chapter is available in every other edition around the world.
As for the Caravan article, which is an excerpt from the chapter, it is available within India on countless blogs and mirror sites that have nothing to do with me or The Caravan or my publishers. This seems to show that the purpose of the lawsuit wasn’t even to remove the piece from circulation, in which case its purpose remains mysterious, unless, of course, it is meant to intimidate.
Penguin and The Caravanare responding to the lawsuit in courts, and at this point we have no reason not to have faith in the Indian legal system as a whole.
The Beautiful and the Damned was published in the UK in June. It will be published in India this August, without its chapter on Arindam Chaudhuri.